March 19th to 21st, i arranged at short notice a quick trip to Yanbaru, the northern area of Okinawa island, famed for its subtropical forest and the associated endemic wildlife. For a birdwatcher, 3 birds are likely to top the target list : the critically endangered Pryer’s Woodpecker (a maximum of 500 birds are thought to remain), the endangered Okinawa rail (also endemic to the area, around 1000 birds are thought to remain), and the more common and widespread but attractive Ryukyu Robin (found throughout the Nansei shoto archipelago). Other birds of interest, Japan endemics or near-endemics, include the Amami Woodcock, the Ryuku Scops-owl, the Japanese Wood Pigeon, Ryukyu Green Pigeon, and a number of migrants visiting the archipelago en-route to their breeding grounds (in this season that is).
This is an easy trip to organize : dozens of daily flights link Tokyo with Naha, including some low-cost from the likes of Air Asia (but still around 400USD a return ticket), as Okinawa has become the prime destination for domestic tourism, a choice of car rental agencies offer their services online (you NEED a car to bird Okinawa, that will set you back around JPY 13500 for 3 days), and a few hotels are available in the area (i opted for the inexpensive, 5300 JPY/night, and conveniently located Kunigami Hotel, http://www.kunigami-shoko.jp/?p=99, which proved to be a good choice).
With a highway now going all the way from the airport to Nago (around 60km), it won’t take more than 2 hours to reach the Okuma junction (a further 35km away, Google Map coordinates 26.730788, 128.169240) on the western coast road (number 58), where the action starts. Here are the areas that i explored :
– The Hiji falls area (GM 26.719125, 128.178982). Starting just 1 km East from the Okuma junction, there is a car park, a recreational facility, and then a large trail leads to the falls 1.5km upriver, with elevated walkways and a bridge. There is normally an access fee, but the whole place was still being repaired from the damages of last year typhoon at the time of my visit, and i could just freely walk my way. Ryukyu Robin is conspicuous all along the way and some individuals are very tame. I flushed a Rail from the trail on my first visit and heard several calling from various places along the river. And i had good but distant views of a male Pryer’s Woodpecker foraging near the canopy on the opposite slope. At one point, i had a Robin serenading me 5 meters away, Rails calling from the undergrowth and a Woodpecker noisily foraging a tree, all in the same time. Definitely a must-go place, even though i am not sure how accessible it will be at early morning hours when it’s all repaired and regular tourists start flocking again. An unfortunate but common feature in Japan, that “public” sites of natural interest have an entry fee and access hours typically restricted to 9am to 4pm, not the best time slot for birdwatching.
– The forest roads. 3km North of Kunigami (GM 26.767300, 128.204484), the Road 2 starts to the right and goes across the island, linking with the West Coast road 70 just after the Fungawa dam, an approximately 10km stretch through the core of Yanbaru forest. From Road 2, at least 5 different forest roads start left or right and crisscross the Yanbaru forest, each of them ultimately ending on one side or the other of the coast. All these roads are good to drive at dawn or dusk, when Robins or Rails may come foraging on leaf litter that accumulates in the bends (together with the Pale Thrush in winter). Pryer’s Woodpecker may be seen or heard anywhere, as well as the Wood Pigeon and mixed flocks of more common birds : Japanese White-eye, Varied and Eastern Great Tits, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, and possibly Ryukyu Minivet or Japanese Paradise Flycatcher. Grey-faced Buzzards also inhabit the woods, they were particularly numerous during my visit (12 sightings!) as migrant birds were probably swelling the local population. The “favorite” roads are the Okuma Rindo (starts at 26.755689, 128.248022) and the Terekubi Rindo (starts at 26.760977, 128.257098), but the others may be just as good. I had a Woodpecker and calling Ryukyu Scops-owl on the Okuma road, a Robin and calling Rails along the Terekubi Road.
– The Ada village area. On the west coast road, continuing North on Road 70 after the junction with Road 2, you go through a mixed area of forest and agricultural land, with lots of places where forest has been cleared but overgrown by grass and shrub. This is prime Okinawa Rail habitat, and a bird may occur by the road at the edge of the grass, particularly at dawn and dusk. At a particular place (26.773315, 128.312652), i just turned off the main road into a side track and immediately flushed a rail that was foraging in the open. I stopped the car and stayed put, and the rail came back 4 times in 45 minutes, coming as close as 4 meters from the car. My impression is that this particular guy was used to people and probably got fed by photographers before.
In addition, i did a 100 km loop around the Yanbaru area, going to Cape Hedo, the Northernmost point on Okinawa, and as far south as the Taito dam. A scenic road, especially on the underdeveloped West Coast, and i picked up a few birds such as Ryukyu Minivet perching on a wire, a flock of Ryukyu Green Pigeons feeding on roadside trees, and a few migrating Ospreys along the coast. My planned exploration of the area around Cape Hedo was unfortunately scrapped because of a huge stormy downpour, that lasted for several hours on my second day.
3 days seemed like the good time frame to do this trip, allowing good views of the 3 main targets. The Pryer’s Woodpecker is certainly the most missable of the 3, and i recommend focusing on him at first. The whole experience is rather pleasant, easy birding as you don’t really need to leave the roads or well marked trails, but i was disturbed by the extensive network of forest roads that runs across the Yanbaru area (which by the way is planned to become a National Park) and the associated road works to repair damages from previous typhoons (Okinawa is in the Typhoon avenue, and usually 1 (or more) strong typhoon hits the island every year, in summer or early fall) or prevent future damages. Along Road 2 and along the Okuma Rindo Road i counted almost 10 road repair sites, and in places the whole forest has been cleared between 2 bends to allow consolidation with concrete injection. In other places, a large surface of forest had been cleared, seemingly to build a car park or some facility. To be sure, the area certainly needs a few roads, and they need to be maintained, but such an extensive network and its maintenance ultimately contradict the conservation objectives that Japanese authorities have set for the area, and loudly advertise to the public. Roads disturb the wildlife, traffic generates accidents (around 20 rails are killed on roads every year, and likely a multiple of that number goes unreported), and maintaining them in such a harsh climate means frequent road repair works, clearing of slopes and therefore further disturbance and reduction of habitat. Closing a good number of unnecessary roads and letting them return to natural state would be a sound decision, if the preservation of Yanbaru natural heritage is really what matters.
For this trip i made an extensive use of a short guide written by Tom Marko, a fine birdwatcher who used to live in Okinawa. I found all content very useful and accurate, for general information purposes as well as birding locations. Highly recommended ! Tom kindly allowed me to post the link to his guide :